This is the Age of Beautiful Death
"My own self, I don't go for Mortician. Too ghoulish, don't you think? And Thanatochemist is abominable. I mean, have you ever? Undertaker is out of fashion and a bit unrefined. Burial Consultant, too bland. Funeral Director is acceptable. Mortuary Scientist seems a bit pretentious, even though mortuary science was our course of study. I've been called an Impression Manager, but that may have been meant sarcastically. I'm a guy that takes everything you say at face value. I'm pretty literal-minded, I guess, which is fine because there's not much call for irony in this profession. Bereavement Counselor has a nice ring to it. Embalmer is misleading. Ain't no balm involved." —Dionysus "Dion" Lazarus
On the morning after his daddy Lindle died—a garden of tumors in his fertile viscera—Delaney Ledoux sat alone at his kitchen table, staring at his bacon, wondering about the butcher who rendered this particular hog, what it must be like for him to work all day in a cold locker with the smells of blood and flesh in his nostrils? He thought about this butcher and how the two of them were now connected, and he thought about the architect of the slaughterhouse and the architect's family, even, about the hog farmer in Ottumwa, and the man the farmer buys his feed from, and the John Deere salesman there in town, who maybe just found out his brother-in-law Walter lost his arm in a combine accident last night—stuck his hand under the auger to catch a handful of grain. Delaney felt connected to all of them and to this hog and to its brief, gluttonous, and confusing life. But he was disconnected from his daddy.
Delaney freshened his coffee, opened the French doors to the yard, and caught the fragrance of the wisteria growing along the net wire fence in the drive. He called ahead to Dion Lazarus to remind him he'd be in to make funeral arrangements later that morning, left the message on Dion's machine. Delaney closed his eyes, saw how the auger caught the elbow of Walter's jacket sleeve and yanked him into the header, how he flipped over the top of the auger and landed in the bin, how he slipped off his coat to free himself and noticed his right arm was gone to the shoulder. Delaney watched as Walter slipped that severed arm out of the sleeve and began running with it across the field toward the lights of his house, toward his wife, his kids, his television set, thinking all the way how he'd need to learn to write left-handed and why hadn't he heard a sound while he was inside that machine.
Delaney switched on the paddle fan over the table and wondered why Walter had bothered to slide the arm from the jacket sleeve. What was going on in Walter's mind? Of course, Delaney knew that since he made Walter up, the answer was in his own head, not Walter's. Walter didn't have a physical head.
Delaney looked at the clock on the wall above the stove, waited for the sweep hand to reach twelve, and determined to be aware of every second for the next minute. He didn't know why he was doing this. He didn't know why he'd never seen the clock before, not really. It had a white, plastic, art-decoish case, and a square white dial with rounded corners. The numerals on the face were black and chunky. The 1s wore little visors. The black hands looked like kitchen knives. A cook's knife and a boning knife. The red second hand began with a crescent, ended in an arrowhead, looked like a drink stirrer. Three seconds had gone by. Four. Five. Who came up with this idea of seconds anyway? Wasn't it enough to measure duration by seasons, by moons, by suns? Does the unit of measurement change the nature of time? Doray Defroster. The name on the clock: Doray, like notes on a musical scale. At the bottom of the face: Telechron Movement. Well, there it is, isn't it? Space and time. Simultaneous yet discrete. Like the idea of the three-personed God. Twenty-three seconds had passed. What was it Clay Mercer had told him about? A chronon, that was it—time becomes a particle when a photon crosses the diameter of an electron. Time possesses mass. Twenty-eight.
There could be nothing before time existed. No time before time. No time after time. Thirty-three seconds. Time—we live it forward, but understand it backward. Except, of course, that time has no direction. So what's eternity then? The awareness that time is fixed, that it's all present, that everything and everyone always exists? Maybe this awareness is the heaven they talk about. Forty-five seconds. Almost finished. So much can transpire in f . . . ifty seconds. Fifty-one.
"Delaney, what are you doing?"
"Aunt Sudie, you scared a year off my span of life. I'm watching the clock is all."
Sudie looked at the clock, at her watch. "It's a minute fast."
Delaney turned. "Don't say that."
Delaney looked up and saw the second hand sweep past the black dots at seven seconds, eight seconds, then round the corner of the square and on to the numeral 2. He hadn't been able to keep his vigil after all. Not for the mistaken minute, and not now for the present minute.
What he'd really been doing, he realized, was trying—although it hardly seemed like trying, there being no effort involved—was trying not to think about his daddy.
Sudie said, "Are you sure you're all right, Delaney?"
He nodded. "Just waiting on Clay. He's coming with me to Dion's."
Sudie said she'd just gotten off the phone with Uncle Breard and Tischalynne. "Folks from Natchitoches will be arriving tonight. I'm running to the Black & Lovely for sweet potatoes and whatnot. You need anything?"
No, he didn't.
Sudie hugged her nephew, told him how sorry she was. She took a pair of scissors from the junk drawer, said she was going to cut some wild irises to bring to Purvis.
"You tell him hi for me," Delaney said.
When his aunt left, Delaney sat at the table and looked over to where his daddy ought to be. He saw the calendar on the wall across the room. When someone's not there, your vision keeps right on going. There's always something to see.
Dion lifted the Sanalin sheet from the cadaver's face, said, "Good morning, Lindle." He folded the sheet in thirds, in thirds again, and placed it on the floor by the aerosol cans of Restor Skin. His cat, Grasshopper, slept curled in the stainless steel sink. Dion patted her head, scratched behind her ear. She purred, stretched, put her foreleg over her eyes, and settled back into sleep. Dion turned on the cassette player. Bill Monroe. He lowered the volume a bit. He sprayed the body with disinfectant, washed it down.
"Lindle, you'll never guess what I saw over to the museum yesterday." He set the spray bottle down on the porcelain embalming table by Lindle's feet. "A fetus in a fetus they called it." He swabbed Lindle's nose and mouth, suctioned out the nostrils. He noticed some clubbing of Lindle's fingers, shook his head, said, "If the cancer didn't get you, the heart would have." He sliced Lindle's throat to expose the jugular and the carotid. He tied off the trachea. "What was I talking about?" He began massaging Lindle's arms and legs. "Oh yes. A fetus was removed from the belly of a four-month-old boy. Believe it? Doctors thought the baby boy had a tumor. Turns out the tumor was the boy's own twin brother. Or would have been."
Dion studied Lindle's face and the photograph of Lindle that Delaney had given him, taken at Lindle's seventieth birthday party. "You could see its feet, a deformed little bitty skull, a spine, these tiny privates. Makes you wonder what was going on in Momma's womb. Probably the alive one killed his brother is what I think. Like right out of the Bible."
Dion held the photo next to Lindle's face. He figured Plasto Wax under the cheekbones and eyes, some Lyf-Lyk Light Tint, maybe feather in a bit of Glow Tint. "We'll have you looking like Gregory Peck before we're finished."
Dion knocked a wax spatula off a tray, which startled the dozing cat, who leaped up and knocked her head on the faucet. Of course, she pretended she meant to do it. She walked along the counter to the table and sniffed at Lindle's scalp. She blinked her eyes and backed away, shook her head, sneezed. Dion tossed a trocar button to the middle of the room, and Grasshopper went after it. She batted it across the floor, hunkered down, stared at it, gurgled, twitched her butt, dared the button to move.
Dion sewed Lindle's mouth and lips closed, glued his eyes shut. He lit a pink and white birthday candle and burned the hair from Lindle's ears. He thought of Lindle, twenty, twenty-five years ago. Lindle sitting outside the Black & Lovely in his white linen suit and his Panama hat, little Delaney up on his knee, drinking a bottle of Big Chief. Dion got out the bruise bleach, the Kalcavex, the suction pump, and the trocar. He wiped down the trocar with a prep towel. He said, "This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you," and then apologized for the gallows humor. Bill Monroe sang, And we shiver when the cold wind blows. Dion placed the trocar point three inches above the naval. Grasshopper lay on her side on the cool tile floor, put her feet against the wall, and walked her horizontal self across the room. Dion punched the trocar through the skin.
Delaney and Clay found Dion out behind the funeral home dumping a sack of Purina Duck Chow into a plastic kiddies' swimming pool for the peafowl. Dion was still wearing the black suit he'd had on early last evening at the house, but he'd removed his tie, which he now took out of his pocket, unrolled, and clipped back on. The peacock fanned his brilliant tail, honked, chattered, and bobbed his way toward Clay.
Dion said, "You're standing in Thomas Love's courtship area. He's telling you there's food here so that you'll rush over and he'll have his way with you."
Clay said, "Well, he's cute enough, but I'll pass on that."
The peahen said, "Hello! Hello!"
Dion escorted his clients, his neighbors, inside. On the way to his office he pointed out his woodworking shop, explained how what with the low mortality rate in town, he needed to supplement his income with custom cabinet making. He almost said, I'm lucky to have one death a month, but caught himself. He said wood's how the Lazarus family got involved in the internment business in the first place. His granddaddy, Logan, made coffins over to West Monroe. Eight-sided boxes. We call what we make now caskets. He asked Delaney how he was holding up.
Delaney admitted he was shaken some, but was thankful he had details like this to tend to to take his mind off the sadder things. He said it doesn't seem right that we all go on with our business when a dear one's life has ended. Dion said, That's the tragedy of it. You die while your neighbor peels potatoes, while the doctor down the street books a flight to Paris.
Clay asked Dion about the model rocket on his desk.
"It's a celestial cremation vault. Been in touch with NASA about it. What we do is we shoot the cremains of whoever can afford it into a sixty-three million year solar orbit. Like a new planet. Everyone who will ever live on Earth will see you."
"If they look up," Clay said.
And then he pointed to an architect's blueprint tacked to the wall. "Another project of mine. The Lazarus Memorial Field of Repose and Garden of Remembrance, a cemetery and zoological park in one. We'll have deer, swans, sheep, foxes, and what not, your nicer animals. And a par-three golf course. Picnic areas, gazebos, a fishing pond." Dion smiled. "I try to keep to the sunny side. The dismal trade can get to you if you let it. Every day at work is an invitation to melancholy." Dion opened his appointment book, took up his pen. "I'm sorry to go on like this."
Delaney said, "No, it's fine. Please."
Dion said, "I work with forty-two dangerous chemicals. Funeral directors are more prone to skin, brain, nose, throat, and colon cancer than anyone else. The toxins, you see. And heart disease. And kidney failure. And chromosome damage. And cirrhosis. The formaldehyde's the worst of it. The smell gets into your clothing, into your pores—you walk around in a noxious cloud of chemical fumes—I'm the last person people want to see."
"That's funny," Clay said.
Dion said, "What is?"
Clay shook his head. "Nothing."
Dion said, "The massage cream we use on the skin of the dearly departed is full of estrogen, and you can wear two pairs of gloves, three, but you can't keep the hormone from seeping into your system. Gentlemen, I have suffered the loss of my sexual drive, if you'll pardon the expression." Dion buried his face in his hands. He apologized. This is completely out of character, he assured them. He gathered himself. "Now would you like to visit the display room to choose the appropriate burial case?"
Delaney thought not. "Just something simple," he said.
Dion said, "Wood or metal?"
"Excellent choice. If God wanted us to have metal caskets he'd have planted steel trees." Dion made a note on his memo pad. "Hardwood?"
"As opposed to?"
"The casket will be opened for viewing?"
"Will you want to arrange a six-minute video tribute to your daddy? Use still photos, tasteful music—"
"No, we won't."
"Check? Credit card? Food stamps?"
"Excellent then." Dion assured Delaney he'd take care of the Death Notice, the flowers, all the odds and ends. And he would expect to see the family at ten in the morning for the wake.
"No wake," Delaney said. "Just the sitting up. Just the family. The others will come to the funeral."
Dion said, "Say hi to your momma for me, Clay."
Delaney closed his book and cut the light. He fluffed his pillow, pulled the covers to his chin. He shut his eyes. They opened. He catalogued the deaths he'd seen. When he was five, he saw a boy go into a seizure of some kind in the schoolyard, flopping like a beached fish, knocking his head against the hard gravel. Delaney laughed like crazy until he saw the faces of his teachers. And then he cried. They all got sent home, and when they got back to the classroom on Monday, the desk that had been the boy's was gone. Miss Prince (Why wasn't it Princess? Delaney used to wonder) told the children they would never see the boy again. (Why can't he remember the name?) Never? Never. Because I laughed? Delaney had asked her. Because he's dead.
The Chunn brothers lived alone in an abandoned filling station on Choudrant Street. One night Slater shot Clayton in an argument over a bowl of butter beans. Shot him right in the gold tooth. Slater dragged Clayton's body out to the front yard and waved to little Delaney riding along on his bicycle. Delaney drove off the curb and fell. After they buried Clayton and carried Slater to the asylum, Ainsley Jarrett flattened the filling station with his dozer, climbed down off the seat, clapped his hands three times and said, End of story.
Delaney's own mother, Averill, had been dead now for a dozen years, died of an aneurism on the night he graduated high school, and sometimes he had trouble seeing her clearly, even with her photographs around the house. One time at the Pecanland Mall in Monroe, Delaney heard a voice behind him that sent a warm flush through his face, and he turned expecting, against all reason, to see his mother and not the attractive brunette speaking into a cell phone.
When he was younger, Delaney had comforted himself with the notion that he'd be flying up to heaven when he died. So even the getting there would be fun. He had pictured heaven as an enormous and luminous room with a linoleum floor. He'd be lonely awhile, but the weather would be pleasant and he'd have his mind and a few toys. When he settled in he'd go looking for the boy from the schoolyard and for his uncle Denison. Now Delaney couldn't imagine heaven at all. He pictured himself being dead, body right here in bed as it was now. He rolled to his back, crossed his arms over his chest. He'd never get to sleep now.
Who was that fellow who lost his arm in the combine's auger? Walter. That's right. Walter needs a second name. Walter Collins. After the accident, and after the unsuccessful attempt to reattach the severed arm—a moment of hope snatched away—Walter became a celebrity around Ottumwa. There was the big fundraising dinner over to the Grange Hall to help pay his medical bills. The Ottumwa Courier ran a photo of the indomitable Walter up a truss ladder, pruning the apple tree out behind the house. Walter was Grand Marshall of the Christmas Parade. Walter was asked by the Reverend Cobleigh to speak with the church's youth group on the subject of We Count Them Happy Which Endure.
But when Delaney locates Walter now—sitting alone at the kitchen table, a loaf of bread before him, an open jar of peanut butter—when Walter licks the knife, well, Delaney knows something has gone terribly wrong. He wonders what. Walter's wearing his overalls. The empty sleeve of his chambray shirt is knotted. They do that for him at the laundry. He's tucked the sleeve into the bib of his overalls. Well, that's it then. Walter's wife Louise has left him, and she's taken the children, moved into town, in with her sister Adelle for now, with Adelle and her husband Bumpy, the John Deere salesman.
Adelle and Bumpy have not been blessed with children of their own (a visit to a urology clinic would have identified Bumpy as weak in the sperm department, but Bumpy was not inclined to make such an appointment) and so they welcomed little Reba and Clint. Louise could no longer tolerate Walter's bitterness, his self-loathing. She no longer cared to expose the children to their daddy's sarcasm and invective. Walter had lost more than an arm in that accident. He'd lost his good humor, his affection, his industriousness. He'd become self-obsessed. And Walter knew he was driving his family away and sometimes felt he was saving them from a life of misery. He didn't call them anymore. He wouldn't answer his own phone.
Walter's favorite time of day is the first few seconds after waking up when he would not remember that his arm was gone, the bed was empty, the house silent. In every dream he dreamed, Walter had the two arms. Delaney isn't happy with what has befallen Walter. Delaney likes his imagined world to be kinder than the world he lives in. He believes in the basic goodness of people, and in the world in his head people get to follow their best instincts and do the right thing. In the rhapsodized world, life isn't reduced to any kind of contest, is not a race or a game or a beauty pageant. In this world, people understand that compassion counts for everything. In this world, people want to be good, and they want to be honest and to be loved. Everyone gets to think about who he would like to be, and then gets to be that desired self.
Walter wipes his mouth with a paper napkin. He knows what they're thinking. They're thinking he's pitiful. Pitiable, Louise used to correct him. Pitiable, pitiful, what's the difference? Walter wants to be known as anything but the One-Armed Man. If he could win the lotto, or if he could save a child from drowning, or if he owned a prize-winning hog, then he'd be Mr. Lucky or the Hero or Farmer of the Year. If only he had packed the arm in ice. If only he poked around with a pole. If he'd shut off the motor. If the auger hadn't jammed. If he hadn't decided to work one more pass before coming in. If it hadn't rained for three days. If he had gone off to college in Ames and studied meteorology like he'd wanted to. Delaney sees Walter wince as an excruciating pain, pain like a jolt of electricity, shoots up the arm that isn't even there.
Dion changed out of his suit and shoes and into his UL-M Indians sweatsuit and cordovan slippers. He fed the gouramis, checked his e-mail, filled the bird feeders, poured himself a bourbon on ice, and walked to the chapel to talk to Lindle. He lifted a clump of cat hair off Lindle's suit jacket. "Grasshopper, what have I told you about that? Bad kitty." Grasshopper rolled on her back and stretched. Dion stepped on the pedal of the chrome trash bucket and dropped the fur inside. He pulled up a chair to the casket and sat. He raised his glass. "Here's to you, old friend." Grasshopper rubbed her body along the leg of the chair.
This is Dion's ritual, spending a quiet few minutes with the dearly departed. He gets a chance, this way, to remember a friend, a neighbor, and gets to reflect again on his own diminishing life. Is he doing what he needs to be doing? He's not certain, but he thinks he is. He offers dignity and comfort to the loved one and the mourners. What is it that he still needs to do before he dies? This is a tougher question because he knows the answer. He sips his drink. But what right does he have to insinuate himself into a life that he once walked away from? How do you say you are a changed man? And how can you prove it?
"So now you know what I do here, Lindle." Dion liked to think that while he prepared their bodies, the deceased looked down at him. He did not know how they could look down without eyes; he just believed they did, and that was enough. You don't have to understand to believe. In fact, belief trumped knowledge as far as he was concerned. Belief was humbling and hopeful. "Won't be the same without you, Lindle. Rest assured."
After the funeral, the family and friends of Lindle Ledoux returned to the house. The dining room table was crowded with food. Besides Aunt Sudie's catfish, there were buttermilk and beaten biscuits, spoonbread and cornbread, red beans and rice, boiled shrimp, fried chicken, crab puffs, black-eyed peas, collards, green beans, fried tomatoes, sweet potato pie, and banana pudding with vanilla wafer crust and whipped cream. In the kitchen the coffee was on the stove, iced tea and lemonade in the fridge, beer and soft drinks in the cooler. Liquor was on the buffet in the parlor. Folks helped themselves, sat where they would, and ate, talked. Hospitality smoothes the edges of grief, and it wasn't long before people loosened neckties, unbuttoned collars, kicked off shoes, sipped drinks, told stories.
Now, we all know there is no comfort in small talk, no solace in chitchat, no substance to idle jabber about the weather or mutual acquaintances. So why do we do it? We talk with each other for various reasons: to inform, to compare, to seduce, to clarify, to cloud, to charm, to deceive, to alarm, to evade, to demur, to bedevil, to reassure, to offend, to warn, to befuddle, to flatter, to belittle, to thank, to bluster, to rattle, to arouse, to soothe, to illuminate, to apologize, to inquire, to amuse, to brag, to inspire, to order, to explain, to encourage, to dissuade, to convert, to argue, to process, to instruct, to vent, to accost, to excuse, to call attention to ourselves, to hear the sound of our own voices, to be polite, to pass the time. But when we talk to understand, to understand ourselves and what we're doing or what we think we're doing and why we're doing it, then we tell each other stories. Stories are how we remind ourselves who we are and how we're connected. Stories are sacred and communal like a burial and the gathering after it.
Folks drifted to the veranda for the cool evening breezes. Uncle Breard and Aunt Sudie sat on the glider, and he told her about this woman he once knew who evidently murdered her baby. He said, "After she kilt him, she put the child in the cardboard box the toaster oven came in. Used shipping tape to seal all the holes. For a month she drives around Shreveport with her dead baby in the trunk of her Chevelle. She's hoping to run into the daddy, Willie Green, that sombitch. Her dream is to unlatch the truck, rip open the box, say, Look, Willie, here's what you did when you left me." Aunt Sudie wondered where civility and sanity had gone to. "Aren't even children sacred anymore?"
Cousin Loy, the podiatrist, dropped peanuts into his Pop Rouge, cleared his throat, and told the folks on the steps how one time he stopped after midnight at a motel in Artesia, New Mexico. "The Alamo Motel. The desk clerk puts down his burrito, wipes his mouth with his hand and his hands on his jeans. He says, No funny business. I tell him I'm exhausted, long drive. He tells me there's a $2 key deposit, a $5 phone deposit, and a $10 cat deposit. I tell him, Thanks, but I don't need a cat. He says, Yes, you do. We have mice. He leads me through the beaded curtain and into a living room. There's a young girl—can't be more than fifteen—curled on the sofa. She doesn't take her eyes off the TV, where a Mexican cowboy warbles a love song."
Tischalynne said "Something funny going on, you think?" Betty Middlefield said, "Sounds like the devil at the Alamo doing his job of work." Loy did not speculate. "Next to the La-Z-Boy are nine plastic kennels, each with a cat, a bowl, a litter box, a scratching pad. The cats' names are written on the kennels with a black marker: Belial, Tom, Diablo, Salvador Dali Llama, and so on. The clerk sucks his teeth, watches the cowboy, tells me to choose. I tell him I'll take Molly. He says, Good choice. You don't even have to take her out of the cage—the mice can smell her. In Room 11, Molly cries until I free her. When I get into bed, she climbs onto my chest and kneads my T-shirt. I massage her neck, she purrs. We ignore the scratching along the baseboards. In the next room a man named Phil tells a woman named Misty that if you're up to your chin in shit, the only thing to do is sing."
Clay told folks about his uncle Rosy Ryan who gave up drink. "This was after the school department fired him for stealing linoleum tiles on top of everything else, and after his wife, Aunt Reba, ran off with my other uncle Raymond Foley—he planted all his whiskey bottles in the backyard, Rosy did, neck up, and pressed rubber dolls' heads over their mouths, brown- and blue-eyed ones and an eerie eyeless few. The lesson of the doll-and-bottle garden, he told me, was this: Our Lord was buried for three days, and all that are in the grave shall hear His voice, and we, too, shall rise from the dead. And he asked me was I ready for the new morning. I told him I was ready to drive him to the V. A. hospital. Get your test results today. That afternoon we learned Uncle Rosy had pancreatic cancer, and had it bad.
"We drove to Sister Livinia Smith's home on the Southside. The sign on Sister's door said, PALMRED, CARDRED, TEALIEF, MINDRED. When he came on back out the house, Uncle Rosy said we got one more stop. At the Crosstown Lounge we ordered bourbon and Cokes. Uncle Rosy took out his wallet and emptied it on the bar. Not much, a 1997 card calendar from Rudy's Barber Shop; a photo of himself as a boy, holding up a 30-pound channel cat; an old lotto ticket; seventeen dollars; his momma's obituary notice from the News-Star. And a phone number on a Post-it note. He slid the number to me. He said, You'll call Reba when it's time. I ordered two more. He said, Clay, I thought as a sober man I'd have all this time on my hands."
Delaney said there were no stories in his life, really. Things just sort of happened. Clay said that was pathetic, a life without stories. He said stories only happen to people who tell them—that's your problem—so you'd best start now.
Delaney said, well, the oddest thing he could recall, he was walking along the levee one time when he saw this wrecker haul an orange Beetle out the river and up onto shore, and you could see there was someone in the driver's seat. "You could see the bloated body inside, a black hood over the face, rope around the neck. Water spilled out the trunk and hood, out the smashed-in windows. Bobby Tubbs who was with me told me the body was probably Leandrew Wilhite, who at one time had grown the best dope in the parish, but then had fallen in with the wrong element. Wound up making angel dust and sorry shit like that. Then his whole farm blew up; a ten-room, two-storey, side-gabled, pyramid-roofed farmhouse, a back house, a cattle barn, and a woodshed, all exploded at once with a fireball big enough to be seen all the way to Calhoun. When the sheriff's deputy opened the car door, you could see that the naked man had a ton of chain wrapped around him. Bobby Tubbs pointed out the right leg. 'See right there, where the catfish been chewing his fat loose of the bone.'"
After the town folks had offered their condolences once again and had walked off across the lawn to their cars, and after Uncle Breard had stolen away and Tischalynne had wrestled her husband Cooter (eleven shots of Rebel Yell) back into his wheelchair and had set off down the road to the Starlight Motel, and after the Shreveport cousins had taken their leave, (long drive back) and after Aunt Sudie had excused herself and gone on up to bed, then Delaney and Dion and Clay poured themselves a nightcap, leaned back in their chairs, none of them, each for his own reason, wanting to go home, to face the emptiness.
Delaney said that when he awoke this morning all he could think about was how unjust and unnecessary death was and what a callous bastard God was to allow this abomination, to have thought it up in the first place. But then he remembered there is no God, no one to blame, and that death is the most natural, if lamentable, of events. And that realization both consoled and anguished him.
Clay said we're all in a maximum security prison, all on death row. You could be ninety or you could be a baby, no matter, you're sentenced to capital punishment. And the baby might go first. Clay watched bats swoop and screech by the eaves of the house. He said, "It's one thing to die, another to know you are going to die. It's like walking down a hallway and knowing the slasher's behind one of those doors, but which one?"
Delaney said, "You've given this some thought."
Clay said, "Death is our execution for the crime of being born. Religion's the tranquillizer that keeps us calm while we're being put to sleep." He sipped his drink. "Not such a bad invention if you think about it."
Dion said, "When someone's dead, you can see it from fifty yards away. It's not like sleep at all. It's not repose, it's depletion. I don't know how to explain it, but the energy has gone, the shimmer around the body, and you stand in the cold shadow it has left."
Delaney said, "Time has become death. Can you believe that?"
Clay said he was disappointed that he wouldn't be around to see how it all turned out here in a few hundred million years when the sun swells before it dies, and we have to leave the planet—what will we take with us? Where will we go?
Dion said, "So tell us a story about Lindle."
Delaney thought a moment, picked up the bottle of whiskey, said, "Well, I could tell you about the time Lindle pawned his wedding ring."
"That'll drill," Clay said.
Delaney filled their glasses. "Pawned it just for the weekend, or so he thought."
"Smells like trouble to me," Dion said.
And Delaney told his friends about his daddy's once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on the commodities market and his regrettable gamble and the hell to pay when Averill just happened down Prudence and looked in the window of On Golden Pawn. And they all laughed and winced and smiled and nodded, and they all pictured poor Lindle in his kitchen, tongue-tied, trying to calm his wife, trying to explain how he had planned to surprise her with wealth, and they shook their heads in wonder, and in this way the absent became present.